Funky but traditional, crafty but modern, full of flavour, and with significant portions, the "Aubergine" restaurant in Sofia proudly represents the younger generation of Bulgarian cuisine. Situated in a hidden alley in the very centre of the Bulgarian capital, Aubergine connects dots of lost flavours and the country's classics, always with a touch of culinary imagination and not-to-extended freedom. We sat with the co-owner and current chef of this popular restaurant, Ivo Chalakov, who likes to emphasise it is craft food.
We started our discovery of Bulgarian cuisine with very traditional "yellow rakia" and followed with a fast and nice starter. We had a dip of Bulgarian yoghurt with mint and basil. It is creamy and rich, with specifically recognisable herbs. Refreshing starter reminds us how essential dairy products are for Bulgarians, cultivating national pride.
A beautiful garden in the traditional Bulgarian style accompanies an alternative interior mood. Guests can enjoy minimalist art on the walls but with a preserving attitude to the architecture of the place visible on a traditional ceiling.
As Ivo tells us, it was all refurbished from the previous place: "I am not a professional chef. I started working in the kitchen 3 or 4 months ago because of a lack of staff. My friend and I wanted to work in the restaurant industry and found this place, which was already called Aubergine. We decided to keep the name, as it has a nice sound and was already somewhat familiar in Sofia. We renovated the place in 2016 and started with our work."
Some signature meals are present from the very start. Ceasar Salad with Chicken Fillet is a highly refreshing meal with beautiful Basmati rice aside. The dressing for the salad is the owner's recipe, quite different from the original dressing for this famous dish. Ivo explains: "The chef always decides how a recipe will go, but we still work as a team and deal harshly with anyone stepping outside the line. We strive for original and better taste."
Another all-time favourite is the bruschetta with aubergine, which adds rich cow's cheese, garlic, and caramelised sweet walnuts. There is no strong bitterness in this vegetable, and the bruschetta finely combines the flavours of the Bulgarian palate. This is one of the restaurant's leading dishes and is on the menu from the very first moment. Aubergine is undoubtedly one of Bulgaria's favourite vegetables, and there are so many recipes based on this noble purple beauty! Next to it was served Tarama Ayvar, one of the best we ever tried.
Aubergine celebrates the art of craft beer. We tried several, beginning with Glarus Beer. It is Premium Pale Ale with 4,2% of alcohol, with mild aromas, but there are multiple other choices, as Ivo mentions: "Craft food came after we decided to specialise in craft beer. We offer only Bulgarian craft beers, with only visiting foreign breweries. We are the only restaurant in Bulgaria offering only Bulgarian craft beers. Craft food came as a catchy addition." While being super crafty, it is a pleasure to combine flavours, as they are more varied than craft beers sometimes can be. And they really go well with the restaurant's main culinary pride.
One of them is stuffed aubergine. It comes with tomato, basmati rice, spices including cinnamon, Bulgarian hard cheese, and mozzarella. The cheese makers are, in fact, from Switzerland who came to Bulgarian 20 years ago and make exciting cheese-based recipes, combining the traditions from both Switzerland and Bulgaria. It is indeed a mix of two great European cheese-making traditions!
The aubergine dish itself is a spectacular festival of tastes and aromas. In 13th-century Italy, the aubergine was considered to cause insanity. In 19th-century Egypt, insanity was said to be more common and more violent when the aubergine was in season in the summer. We hope we are not insane, but this aubergine dish was insanely delicious!
Next, we tried pork tenderloin, bacon marinated in sage and capers, with some great tomatoes, sauteed aubergine with oyster sauce, and beetroot marinated in thyme and with some Parmigiano on top. Very soft and juicy tenderloin is accompanied by an abundance of vegetables. Again, there is a nice twist, calling for more Mediterranean flavours but keeping traditional Bulgarian love for vegetables.
No wonder because Bulgaria's geographical position and favourable climatic conditions allow the cultivation of a wide variety of vegetables with excellent quality. The country has been a traditional producer and exporter of vegetable crops, and a simple visit to the local market can show tremendously big tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and all other ingredients for imaginative salads (not only Shopska!), traditionally eaten with a sip of rakia!
Ivo comes from an interesting culinary background. One side stems from the Shopkso region in north-western Bulgaria, which is rich in agricultural products, cheese production, and unspoiled nature but has a relatively easy approach to Sofia. Ivo got a lot of culinary ideas from this side of the family, but his bourgeois Sofia heritage from another side gives him a lot of insights into the gastronomic heritage of the imperial capital.
One of these cultivated heritages is the Garosh cake, which was originally from the early 20th century. It was made by a chef named Garosh. He was not Bulgarian but Hungarian, one of the many visitors from Central Europe who came to the newly renovated Bulgarian Empire, fell in love and stayed. Ivo says it is a family recipe from his aunts, who used to make it at home. A lot of butter, a lot of walnuts, eggs, pistachio, and cocoa make this cake a wonderful dessert.
With sips of excellent apricot rakia, we end this culinary journey in Aubergine—a place of exquisite tastes and flavours enchanted with its mix of products and welcoming spirit. We will surely return to Aubergine to taste the rest of the elaborative menu!
Carnegie Street 11, Sofia
+359 88 999 1867